Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Evil We Do

One of the things I've been doing this summer has been working through a new translation of the Taiping Jing by Barbara Hendrischke. (This is taking some time, as I purchased an inexpensive e-book edition which, unfortunately, can only be read on-line from my computer.) This book should be of interest to all Daoists because it is a foundational text for religious Daoism and was the rallying document for the the yellow turban revolt.

There are quite a few interesting things I've seen in this book, but one that really sticks with me is the way the author, (ie: the "Celestial Master"), deals with the problem of evil. As a Daoist, he refuses to see it as being caused by some sort of outside, antagonistic force. He would reject the Christian notion that there is some sort of Satanic tempter sitting on our left shoulder suggesting bad things. Neither does he suggest that people choose to do bad things based on simple self interest. Instead, he has what I would suggest is a quite sophisticated moral theory that understands a person's moral behaviour in a social, historical context.

That is to say, he warns his followers to not judge people too harshly for their behaviour because the good and evil they do flow out of the decisions that their ancestors made before them. Evil consists in living in disharmony with the Dao. And a family or entire society can progressively work itself out of sync with the Dao through generations of bad small decisions. This means that when a child is raised in a family or a society they end up being dominated by the reasoning, social institutions, cultural artifacts, etc, that surround her. With the wrong background, it is hard for any individual to really know how to act in accordance with the Dao in any given situation.

This is not to say that people are "let off the hook", though. Even if it is very difficult to know the ultimate "right thing to do", we are still confronted with a myriad of small decisions to either do right or wrong. It is the aggregation of these small choices that decide the flow of history. So even the Emperor himself is, to a large degree, a prisoner of history. If he inherits a realm that has been poisoned by generations of bad choices, even with the best of intent his judgment will inevitably be clouded and his options limited. Similarly, if someone comes to power in a happy time and benefits from the clear-thinking of previous generations, we should be careful to understand that a great deal of his "virtue" comes from the luck of the draw.

This moral theory has a lot of similarities to that of the Hindu/Buddhist idea of Karma, but with the distinction that it is not a metaphysical process (i.e. retribution based on rebirth), but rather a sociological one (i.e. a progressive unfolding of human culture.) But it does have the idea that one's moral choices do not exist in some sort of eternal vacuum, which is the basis of both Christianity and modern political theory, but instead in a constantly flowing society. The upshot for both Buddhism and Daoism is that making moral choices is not simply one of choosing between discrete and equally "live" options (i.e. between "good" and "evil"), but instead involves a dimension of psychological introspection and growth.

In the Taiping Jing this process of seeking growing discernment is called "holding onto the One". The mechanics of this process aren't clearly described, but from the context it seems clear (at least in the translation---which looks pretty good) that this is where all the different techniques of "internal alchemy" come into play. What a different world we would inhabit if morality was connected to self-awareness instead being considered two very different things---as much of the West seems to believe.


Anonymous said...

What a good post. I don't read the Tai Ping Jing, but the topic is of interest to me. I think the Tai Ping Jing, with this approach, would like be againt Confucianist moralism. One important thing that I sought in your writing but I didn't find is the grace from Dao. Look at the first sentence of the Laozi's chapter 37:
The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.
(Mitchell's translation)
"Good" and "evil" through Dao are done and if a Wang is Wang it is by Dao's will. Quran says (74:31), "Thus doth Allah leave to stray whom He pleaseth, and guide whome He pleaseth"
It is very important that very progressive unfolding of human culture cannot be outside of acts of Dao and at the same time Dao never does anything.
Sometimes it is so difficult to gather socialogical, ethical and metaphysical points of view.

Anyway your writting was so useful for me.
Thanks a lot.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Thank you for your praise---.

I looked up Chapter 37 in the Henricks translation of the Ma-Wang-Tui text. (In case you don't know, the Ma-Wang-Tui version is one of the oldest versions of the book we have. Also Henricks is a recognized scholar and translator, whereas Michell doesn't even know modern---let alone ancient---Chinese.)

This is an interesting chapter to look at with regard to the Ma-Wang-Tui text because the order is different and this particular set of verses is the last. Moreover, there are significant differences from the received text that Mitchell would have been playing with.

This is the Henrick's version:

The Tao is constantly nameless.

Were marquises and kings able to maintain it,

The ten thousand things would transform
on their own.

Having transformed, were their desires to become active,

I would subdue them with the nameless simplicity,

Having subdued them with the nameless simplicity,

I would not disgrace them.

By not being disgraced, they will be tranqil.

And Heaven and Earth will of themselves be correct and right.

As you can see, the Henricks language can be read as a manual of statecraft, whereas Mitchell is constantly pulling it towards a spiritual direction. My belief is that the importance of the Dao De Jing to Daoism is greatly exaggerated by people and that other texts---like the Taiping Jing and the Zhuangzi---are more important.

With regards to "grace", that is an interesting question, one that I will have to think a bit more about. My understanding of "the Dao" is that it is a very impersonal thing---more like a law of nature than a deity---, so I cannot see where grace, as a "gift", has any place. But I do see the parallel with the text you cite with regard to everything being governed by the Dao. I also seem to remember from reading a translation of the Koran a statement to the effect that Allah is closer to a man than his jugular---which would apply to the Dao as well.

Finally, with regard to Confucian moralism, I think it is important to make a distinction between Gongfuzi and what later scholars made of him. I don't know much about Gongfuzi, but the consensus seems to be that his teachings were turned into an authoritarian parody by the Imperial Chinese government.

Thanks for your interest. I've been looking at your blog too, but it is way over my very limited knowledge of Islam.

White Tiger Wayfarer said...

Great entry, I've been meaning to read the Taipingjing and after reading this I think I may pick up the Hendrischke translation (probably in e-book format too!).

I think it's possible to link spirituality with statecraft (Mitchell's New Age-y "translation" notwithstanding). The human being was considered a microcosm of the world, and in fact there are later Daoist maps of the body as a sort of "mini-cosmos". Therefore advice on how to govern the kingdom can be seen implicitly as advice on how to rule the body-mind; the fact that passages from the Nei Yeh ("Inner Training"), an ancient inner alchemy manuel seem show up in the DDJ suggests to me that the text has several layers of meaning.

zhekai said...

Hi, i've just stumbled across your blog. It's great to find a such thoughtful reflections on Daoist themes. I haven't found many other resources out there.

My interest is in understanding the observations about human nature and reality that the Daoists made in their writings. I am not a practicing Daoist, and am quite happy to speculate on the ramifications of Daoist thought to Christianity, and anything else that makes profound observations on reality.
But, some people don't like that kind of thing, so please let me know!

I didn't know much about the Taiping Jing, so it was great to read your post about it.
The idea of evil unfolding through generations is something that intrigues me. I've noticed in everyday life how one generation inevitably influences the next, even when this is not a question of 'evil'.

So i've seen abusive parents produce victimized children, and yet those children have gone on to become abusive adults. While it's instinctive to blame the parents, it seems that they themselves all too often have received equal or worse treatment at the hands of their own parents. Like a family curse the behavior patterns can be passed from generation to generation.

Yet even in their attempts to break free from such patterns, a person may err in another direction perhaps by being too indulgent of their children, or producing children who are sheltered from some of life's challenges.

Yet a simple behavioral model of inherited tendencies doesn't appeal to me, because i think that, in a Daoist context, avoiding evil is not the same as doing good; and doing good is not the same as following the way. I think that there is already something wrong with human beings and reality.

Some Christians use the teaching of original sin at this point to explain or at least illustrate that even 'good' men are somehow 'wrong' even from birth. This is a theory of sin being passed down from generation to generation, not only in learned behavior or personality, but in some spiritual aspect of reality. Hence everyone has the potential to 'go bad' even if conditions are good from birth.

Original sin comes from our first ancestors and is depicted in the myth of the garden of eden. I found this myth difficult to comprehend...well, the basics are clear enough (ie. major stuffup by humanity), but i couldn't make sufficient sense of the details.

Until (for me) the daoist context filled in the blanks. So the eden myth symbolizes the point at which humanity broke away from the dao and caused disorder to enter the world. My thinking is that humans did this in pursuit of power aided by knowledge, which constitutes the kind of un-natural striving or contrivance condemned by daoism.

One thing i love about daoism is that the concept of a 'way' that governs everything and ought to be followed offers an almost 'mechanical'...or should i say 'functional' counterpart to the more authoritarian (almost Confucian) idea that it is our duty to make peace with our Creator, whom we have offended.

I'm not trying to say that daoism is christian or christianity is daoist, but i think they're both in some ways trying to describe the same reality.

So while christians talk perplexingly about 'eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil' and how this cut them off from the source of life, i believe that something happens in every human being, who turns to contrived knowledge instead of turning back to the dao. No matter how much knowledge we accumulate, it is pointless if we are at odds with our own nature, that is nourished by the dao.

Anyhow, i hope this (long-winded) comment is not too out of place here.